Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wine and outhouses, Racha-Style

by Alice Feiring

19.06.2013. First, where is Racha? Northwest of Georgia (no, not Atlanta). Not far from Imeriti. Gorgeous. Rich in terroir; iron, carbon, granite, slate, marcasite, quartz,  limestone of all colors that is crawling with ancient crustaceans. The place is a raw nerve of terroir.

Yet the mountainous, pulse-stoppingly beautiful highland-like region is gravely under-utilized and way too poor. This, Georgia's smallest wine region with no bottle-ready wine maker currently on the market--is a  land in need of champion. No foreign star winemaker such as Raul Perez/Telmo Rodriguez is on the horizon. Given my prejudice about wine, this is a good thing.

But some of Georgia's best,  committed to making wine close to nature--like Imertian Ramaz Nikoladze, or Kartlians Niki Antadze and Iago Bitarishvili or Khaketian Gela Patalishvili--could help some of the home talent wanting to come to local and foreign tables.  But right now these local superstars are also struggling to make a dream happen-- as all were born in Soviet times when there no dreams were allowed.

Georgian wines--the great ones-- are in demand. France, Italy, London, Japan and increasingly New York are importing. Japan is super nuts over wines from this country, orange, white and reds. Buyers / importers are begging for magnums. But it's not so simple. The guys here are forced to deal with issues few winemakers from acclaimed territory have to: Can they afford the bigger bottle?  Even if some of the above are lucky enough to have indoor flushables, can they afford the different corks? These excellent vignerons, the small ones (average 2,000 bottles) and no super young--no one is under 35--a good dose are way over 50  are under-financed. One winemaker when he started risked his father's wrath when he sold a beaten down car to buy a new qvevri. Every decision they make is weighed very heavily. Yet show up to taste unannounced in any region? They laden the table, with at the very least, katchapuri (cheese stuffed bread), tomatoes and cucumbers, salty cheeses, little salads, boiled or cured meats-- more often than not all made from their own animals. Hospitality in this country defies the pocketbook -- serving guests is their mission,  joy and victory.

In my Georgian stay I learned lessons. One of them was at the benefit of spending days in the western region relying on outhouses, not knowing how or where to wash my hands, how to shower or how to brush my teeth. Approaching the little house on the fringe in the growing day's heat made me confront the meaning of civilization. My initial reaction was familiar: watching the dentist inch towards me with a sharp tool.  In early morning calls (Oh, no! I said to my gut as it rumbled with strange bacteria.) I tried to coat the nostril hairs (Thank you jasmine solid scent from Mandy Aftel.)  I  sometimes steeled  myself against the morning winds. Mostly I felt in my bones how lucky I was that back on Elizabeth Street I had a pull chain toilet in my apartment five floors above. I also became painfully aware of my city-girl spoiled life and marveled at how those can not only cope but do so with no complaint. It made me think about  frills I count on, the lipstick, the change of clothes, the electric toothbrush, the short hop to my water closet from my bed.

There are many other third world and war torn countries with similar situations, but I can't think of  any other top wine country in the world  that struggles to make their wine under such conditions? I've seen so many 'wineries' here, without easy access to water. They manage and yet the best of the wines are clean, lovely, energetic and vibrant and additive free.  Is it a miracle or is it just that they found the magic way to make wine with truly as little intervention as possible and  still present us with something salubrious and delicious.

Buying and drinking Georgian wine  is not merely a privilege but as a necessity--a Kickstarter campaign with a great reward program.


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